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J. S. Mill and the Despotism of Progress
On the futility of right-liberals who look to Mill for refuge from the progressivism that Mill helped create
I’m thrilled to be published for the first time in the indispensable journal UnHerd. Its editors invited me to comment on the legacy of J. S. Mill on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his death on May 7. I distill some of my rather intense distaste toward right-liberal invocations of J. S. Mill, namely how his defense of free speech and expression in On Liberty is supposed to save us from “wokeism.” This stance woefully misunderstands Mill’s project, which was to orient society in precisely the transgressive direction that dominates today.
I argue instead that Mill was not a defender of free speech for the sake of debate, but hoped unfettered challenges to custom would be the mechanism undermining traditional society, in favor of one dominated by progress. As I suggest in the piece, Mill’s work was shrewdly mistitled On Liberty; its actual theme is On Progress. I suggest that Mill would be quite gratified with the rise of a “despotism of progress,” particularly the way it constrained the backward traditionalism of ordinary people, toward whom he expressed unadulterated contempt.
Rather than look to Mill, those seeking to resist today’s progressive totalitarianism should, as Orwell recommended, “look to the proles.” Just as Mill effected a “regime change,” we should look to do the same by aligning ourselves with the instinctive traditionalism of the demos that Mill deplored. In either regime, some theoretical condition of “true liberty” is purely fictional and not an aim requisite for a flourishing society. We will either have today’s “despotism of progress” or the “restoration of good custom.” In the hopes of encouraging the latter, it is time for a revolution against the revolution.
The essay can be read in its entirety here. On May 7, let’s all pray for Mill’s soul, but as well that his philosophy and the mischief it has wrought may also soon rest in peace.
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